It’s rare that there’s much good news for recent immigrants here in the U.K. – especially in that silliest of all seasons, election season. Yet while I am sad to report that Tony Blair shows no signs whatsoever of :

a)    growing a spine;
b)    ceasing his efforts to out-Herod Howard in terms of immigrant bashing  or;
c)    disgracing his long-suffering trainers at the Doggie Obedience School for High-Class Poodles by giving Bush a short sharp bite in the nadgers.  

I nevertheless saw something today that made me think, “Gosh. Excellent. What a good idea.”

Yeah – pretty damn rare.
It’s pretty well-known that pound for pound and dollar for dollar, that money sent `home’ by people living and working “abroad” to their families and/or friends in developing nations (aka remittances) far outstrips official development assistance (and yes – those scare quotes do mean that “home” and “abroad” are categories that I find increasingly problematic in my old age). For example, today’s Guardian reported that


The World Bank conservatively estimates the 2003 global remittances figure at $93bn (£49bn) a year, around twice the level of worldwide official development assistance, and second only to foreign direct investment in terms of financial flows to the developing world.

For a lot of people living on the edge, remittances make a huge difference. The Guardian claims that

For millions of poor families, remittances constitute up to half their income, which they spend on better housing, diet and on consumer goods as well as investing in businesses, education and health care. Such funds are also a big source of foreign exchange for many developing countries.

This isn’t to say that the benefits of global remittances to developing nations are distributed evenly. As Devesh Kapur (Harvard University and the Center for Global Development ) observed in Remittances: the New Development Mantra at the International Conference on Remittances (London 2003),

the bulk of international remittances do not accrue to the poorest countries. Nearly half of all remittances received by developing countries flow to lower-middle income countries, while the other half flow about equally to upper-middle income and low income countries . . . The fact that Sub-Saharan Africa receives the least amount of reported remittances and (unlike trends in other regions) has shown virtually no growth in remittances in the last five years, is a sobering indication that this source of finance is unlikely to be contribute [sic] significantly in ameliorating the external financing problems of the region

Why does sub-Saharan Africa tend to lose out?
Kapur says it’s because geography matters.

 There are large migrations from African countries, but the civil strife in that region sends migrants across borders to other impoverished African countries rather than to rich countries.

Certainly this has proved to be the case in the DRC, where some 3.6 million people have been internally displaced and a further 440 000 have fled across international borders, mostly to surrounding countries. The 2004 World Refugee Survey reports that

Significant numbers of Congolese refugees lived in 13 African countries, including some 150,000 in Tanzania, 80,000 in Congo-Brazzaville, 60,000 in Zambia, 41,000 in Burundi, 35,000 in Rwanda, 13,000 in Angola, 12,000 in Uganda, 10,000 in Central African Republic, 9,000 in South Africa, 5,000 in Zimbabwe, 4,000 in Cameroon, 4,000 in Mozambique, 3,000 in Malawi, and 1,000 each in Benin and Namibia. Nearly 11,000 Congolese were asylum seekers in Western countries.

As I observed elsewhere the overwhelming majority of these refugees fled to countries that are among the very poorest in the world, according to the 2004 Human Development Index.  

Despite the endless posturing of politicians and politicos from rich `Western’ countries, with their expedited asylum hearings and their trans-national archipelago of “detention centres” stretching through time and space from Woomera to Sangatte, the countries that actually bear the brunt of unplanned mass immigration – usually under desperate circumstances – are those with the very least resources.

Reporter to Gandhi: “What do you think of Western Civilisation?”

Gandhi: “I think it would be a good idea.”

Me too.

But back to that good news. There is some. I promise.

At present those who try to send money `home’ from the U.K. may find themselves confronted by transaction times of up to 10 days, as well as transfer charges of up to 40% of the sum that they are transferring ( Guardian )  In addition, it can be hugely frustrating and time-consuming working out the safest and cheapest way to send money `home’ in a way that the people that it’s being sent to can actually access it.

Recently, the UK Department for International Development have started doing something to improve this situation. Basically, they’ve done a bunch of consumer research (including `mystery shopping’) to figure out who delivers and who doesn’t – and who gouges and who doesn’t. You can check it out   here. To make the information more accessible and useable, they’ve also produced a bunch of country-specific leaflets that are going to be fairly widely distributed.

See – good news. Not terribly dramatic good news, but good news nonetheless. Because I think with the politics of development, it’s making those practical incremental steps that start to add up.

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